I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) presents a rigid society in which the lower classes find it nearly impossible to rise above their given situation. When Allen comes back from WWI, his family and society expect him to return to the same life and the same job that he previously worked. Allen tries to explain that he can’t go back to a mindless factory job, saying, “No one seems to realize that I have changed. I'm different now. I've been through hell. Folks here are concerned with my uniform, how I dance. I'm out of step with everybody. All this while I was hoping to come home and start a new life, to be free... and again I find myself under orders. A drab routine, cramped, mechanical. Even worse than the Army.” Allen wants a job that challenges him and uses the creativity he has to offer. He argues, “It doesn't occur to you that I've grown... that I've learned life is more important than a medal on my chest... or a stupid, insignificant job.” But his society refuses to let him grow or escape the given directives of how he should spend his life.
The film underlines society’s strict class indicators and denial of any possible social mobility. When James Allen (Paul Muni) boards a train soon after his escape, we hear the police shout that they’ve seen the criminal. But they rush right past Allen, who’s freshly shaven, wearing a new suit and hat, and direct their attention at a vagrant, whom they assume is guilty because he looks poor.
Finally, at the end of the film, after Allen has been sent to the chain gang twice for a crime he never committed, Allen’s very last line, “I steal!” shows us that his hypocritical government has forced Allen to become the thief they all along accused him of being.
Still from I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)
ScreenPrism: How would you describe the film's take on class structure and social predeterminism?
Professor Marc Lapadula: I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang illustrates that Allen was able to get out and be a really productive member of society. But, but, but… that possibility only exists if the individual is treated fairly and left alone to do what he can. This is a movie about a guy wanting to be creative with his labor. He wants to build things, after all that destruction he saw in World War I (the Great War), where he was a soldier, experiencing mustard gas and trench warfare and all that decimation. He comes back with a beautiful desire to create, and because he has that desire he's crucified throughout the entire movie. If he’d just worked in that factory and was a drone who could do his job with his eyes shut, everything would’ve been fine. (That's what Mr. Parker tells him, “Before you know it, you'll be doing it again with your eyes shut.”) Well, who wants to be able to do a job with his eyes shut? We want to be challenged.
I'm not the same person after I've been through World War I that I was before I left. People don't understand that when these veterans come back, they're not the same guy, they're not the same gal, that they were before they went over there. And we can't straitjacket them into acting like nothing’s changed. The military can be a transformative experience. People like my father — he came from very humble beginnings. Born in Brooklyn, he went into World War II and came out with the GI Bill, and he became a surgeon. He probably wouldn't have been a surgeon if not for World War II and the GI Bill, so when the government does right, that can be very positive.
But absolutely, the movie is suggesting that society is very rigid, that it really doesn't allow you to determine your course, that it straitjackets you. When Allen breaks free of it, he's able to succeed. Ultimately, though, they won’t let him stay free of that rigid system.
Paul Muni in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)
When Allen’s walking down the street in the stolen clothes after his escape, all the men he passes are wearing suits with jackets and hats. Allen really stands out. People don't realize that leisurewear and sports clothes did not exist in the 1930s. It was post-World War II that we developed this other wardrobe called sportswear. Before that, people either wore suits, or they had overalls because they worked in factories or farms. Walking down the street in those stolen clothes, Allen’s sticking out like a sore thumb. Then, as soon as he gets the new suit, he’s going to be a new man. “You look like a new man,” the vender says as he gives Allen the new suit, and Allen looks in the mirror and agrees. But nobody ever recognized the old man that he was — the old, young man that he was. Nobody let him be the ultimate new man that he was when he emerged from World War I. So yes, he’s a new man, but what does that even mean? But he has a suit, so they go after the hobo, and Allen gets on the train undisturbed.
Throughout the film, Allen is associated with bridges. He designs a bridge in Chicago, he does manual labor on bridges in the chain gang, and he eventually blows up a bridge during his second escape. Allen talks about his dream to “build bridges, roads for people to use… when they want to get away from things.” But he goes on to say, "They can't get away. Nobody can.”
Allen has the urge to build something that creates a path to freedom. At the end when he blows up the bridge, Allen’s forced to destroy that which he wanted to create, in order to get away. The moment is symbolic of his inability to escape a toxic system that has trapped and enslaved him.
Destroying that which you wanted to create, in order to survive — what a horrible thing. Just like pawning his medal because he has no money. I mean, what a horrible thing. What an ultimate tragedy this is.
When you look at his face, in the last scene of the film, Allen looks crazy. The government and society have finally driven him crazy. In the end, he becomes that person they accused him of being, when he wasn't that person at all. They have created a criminal out of an innocent man.